Ennapadam S. Krishnamoorthy

We must consider quality of life and wellness as treatment outcomes and ask ourselves whether the treatment we opt for will help us achieve these outcomes.

Quality of life is a relatively novel concept that dominates both medical science and health policy today and is widely accepted as the best indicator of outcome of treatment. The focus among practitioners of modern medicine, and indeed, in social consciousness, however, remains firmly on the elusive concept of “cure.” The adage among medical practitioners of yore: “to cure sometimes, control often; but comfort always,” hints at the importance of life quality, one that is forgotten, however, in the quest for miracle cures.

That the majority of chronic conditions defy cure is something doctors know, but often choose to be agnostic of. Thus apart from infections, inflammations, metabolic disturbances and transient visitations of their ilk, that respond well to drugs designed to terminate them; and indeed abnormalities of structure (organs that have lost structural integrity) that are amenable to surgical intervention, the vast majority of medical conditions while potentially controllable, are not curable. Diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol levels, ischaemic heart disease, stroke, epilepsy, dementia and a host of other conditions while “treatable” and/or “modifiable” (relief from clinical symptoms and attendant complications) are not “curable.” The promise of a “cure” for many chronic diseases thus remains wishful; that rainbow with its elusive pot of gold, at the end of the dark, illness cloud.

There is no doubt we are living longer as a society, and this longevity is attributable, in great part, to advances in modern medicine; cardiac bypass procedures, joint replacements, organ transplants and such like. There is ample evidence to support our collective social longevity, the average Indian lifespan having increased by over a third, since the time of independence, the increase being greater in “advanced” societies like Japan. However, whether such longevity leads automatically to enhanced quality of life remains a conjecture. For example, the follow-up data after a cardiac bypass surgery, arguably the best known lifespan enhancing procedure, shows in many studies high rates of depression and cognitive dysfunction (memory and higher order brain function problems) 5-10 years after the procedure. It would be fallacious to blame the bypass procedure for these complications in the brain and mind; after all, had the person with ischaemic heart disease lived long enough, without the procedure, he might have developed these anyway. However, in evaluating the overall “success” of such procedures or advocating their widespread application through policy implementation, these factors must be considered carefully. In this instance, the question that begs our attention is: “while the procedure enhances lifespan, does it enhance the quality of life?” And if it does not for a select group, who constitutes the group? Why not for it? When does it enhance the quality of life, and when doesn’t it? What determines the outcome in a given individual? Where and how is this outcome determined? These questions need clear answers and we do not always have them.

It is striking how both modern medicine and society are obsessed with the concept of “cure,” the quest for magic pills (or, indeed, magic procedures) that will help achieve the longevity goal, being never ending. The energy, enterprise and expense invested in this quest, by affected individuals, their families, and governments are, unfortunately, not always rewarded with a good quality of life after the procedure. Our obsession with “cure” probably comes from two very different directions. The first is idealistic; the tantalising possibility that we will, through advancements in science and technology, “fix” the vast majority of problems concerning the human body. When mankind has learnt to fly, build tunnels through mountains and under the sea, and transport itself into space at will, this aspiration of curing chronic diseases and enhancing longevity does not really seem that distant a frontier.

The second, however, probably has more sinister origins that merit careful consideration. The business of curative medicine is enormously lucrative and demands the constant creation of markets that will utilise the goods and services it develops. What could interest the human race more than the possibility of a cure for illness and life-enhancement (with or without quality)? A degree of scepticism of novel, potentially curative treatments is, therefore, warranted in the modern social context, and we must examine carefully whether the promise of “a magic cure” for any chronic condition guarantees alongside an improvement in the quality of life. Thus, while we share a collective belief that people not only live longer due to advances in medical science but also live well, the presumption of a better quality of life, is sadly, in many instances, just that — a presumption!

Scientifically viewed, the proof that many modern medical treatments enhance the life quality remains tenuous, to say the least. At a recent lecture in VHS, Chennai, Shah Ebrahim, Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Chair of the South Asian Chronic Diseases Network, a renowned international expert on chronic disease epidemiology, rued our societal predilection for magic bullets (The Hindu, January 9, 2010). Talking about the “polypill” — a combination of aspirin (blood thinner), a Statin (to lower cholesterol levels), and antihypertensive agents (to lower blood pressure) — that is intended to enhance cardiovascular health, he pointed out that simple health promotion measures such as changing over to rock salt from processed salt (high in sodium) and using soya oil as opposed to palm oil (which strangely attracts a lower tax probably due to anomalies in trade policy) were just as likely to improve cardiovascular health. These are far cheaper for governments to implement, and relevant to developing nations.

Prescribing the widespread use of the polypill for the middle-aged, as opposed to implementing these simple public health interventions through changes in policy, both health and trade, will be deleterious in many ways, he opined. It will be costly to the nation and poorly sustainable, will have low penetration in society and perhaps, most importantly, take away the responsibility for our health from us, placing it firmly in the hands of the pharmaceutical industry. Further, the former approach, of making people assume responsibility for their lifestyle and diet, alongside the implementation of a complementary government lead policy, is far more likely to enhance other desirable health behaviours in society and, indeed, global health outcomes.

Why do we then as a society look to the “polypill” with such enthusiasm or consider it with such seriousness? The answer probably lies in our preference for “cure” as opposed to comfort and life quality. Happily for us, improved quality of life and “wellness,” a concept that has traditionally dominated eastern thought and traditional medical systems, is today receiving much global attention. Wellness encompasses both physical and mental well-being, the latter being a dynamic state of optimal functioning referring to the individual’s ability to develop his or her potential, work productively, build strong and positive relationships with others and contribute to the community. We must recognise that the prevention and management of diabetes extend far beyond the popular notion of blood sugar control; that cardiac health cannot be achieved merely by unblocking blood vessels and enhancing circulation through a stent or bypass; and indeed that the drugs for dementia available today do not even guarantee slowing of disease progression, let alone cure or reversal.

Given this scenario, we as a nation and society must consider quality of life and wellness as treatment outcomes, quite seriously, and ask ourselves whether the treatments we are considering, however technologically advanced and seductive, will likely help us achieve these outcomes. We would also do well to examine closely the role of traditional and indigenous medical systems that have for centuries retained this focus on wellness and life quality through health promotion, prevention of illness, care and comfort for those affected with chronic illness; not merely curative treatments.

(Dr. Ennapadam S. Krishnamoorthy is Honorary Secretary, Voluntary Health Services Hospital, Chennai. The views expressed herein are his own.)